Artemisia Gentileschi at Palazzo Braschi
(self-portrait of Gentileschi as a lute player)
When I was a child, I had a Dorling Kindersley book about great artists and paintings. The painting took up most of the two-page spread, and was surrounded by little annotations, pointing out details and symbols, and providing historical context or biographical information. That book was my introduction to art – the book that made me fall in love with Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne and sparked my interest in Artemisia Gentileschi.
One of the paintings was Gentileschi’s Susanna and the Elders, painted when Gentileschi was only 17 yeas old. Susanna sits by the water, naked, turning away in disgust from the two clothed men who ogle her, whispering to each other. Although I was too young to understand exactly what was going on – the lechery, the threat of sexual violence – something about the painting grabbed my attention. I’d already realised that nudity was everywhere in old paintings – nudity for nudity’s sake – but here it had a point. It made sense, given that Susanna had just been bathing, and it added to the sense of discomfort and vulnerability. And then there was her expression – the look of anguish on her face. It was a painting that told a story, a painting with emotions. At the age of 9 or 10, that was all I really wanted from art.
When I grew older, I read more about Artemisia Gentileschi, and became fascinated by her life as well as her art. There weren’t many successful female artists in the early 16th century – she was a respected painter, and the first woman to be accepted into the Accademia delle Arti in Florence.
She was also a rape victim. At the age of 19 she was raped by a friend of her father’s, Agostino Tassi. Over the course of a seven month trial, Gentileschi was subjected to humiliating medical examinations and tortured with thumbscrews. It emerged that Tassi was not only guilty of the rape, but had also been planning to murder his wife, and was having an affair with his sister-in-law. Although he was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment, he never served the time. Tassi was also a painter, but history has remembered him as a rapist first, artist second.
The rape has, in a way, also defined Gentileschi and her career ever since. It’s impossible to look at the gory Judith Slaying Holofernes (painted just a year afterwards) without seeing it as a kind of revenge fantasy.
(For more about this painting and Gentileschi’s life, read my blog post here).
For the last few months, this image has been plastered all over the walls and bus stops of Rome. I’d seen Judith Slaying Holofernes up close at the Uffizi, but I’d never seen any other works by Gentileschi in real life before, so I was excited by the prospect of an exhibition dedicated to her.
Valeriano and I went together one Saturday afternoon, queuing for 45 minutes. Although we grumbled about the queue, I suppose it’s a good sign that so many people are interested in her…
The exhibition at Palazzo Braschi was larger than I’d expected, taking up several rooms. The name of the exhibition is actually Artemisia Gentileschi e il suo tempo (“Artemisia Gentileschi and her time“), and I’d say the exhibition is roughly a 50/50 split between works by Gentileschi, and works by contemporary artists who painted similar themes, with a similar style. The result is that it can feel a little repetitive at times – a succession of penitent Mary Magdalanes, pensive Cleopatras and bloody heads.
It’s definitely not for the squeamish. In addition to all the versions of Judith and Holofernes, there’s also Gentileschi’s painting of Jael and Sisera. Sisera was an army commander mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, who was killed by Jael. She hammered a tent peg into his head with such force that the peg went through the other side, pinning his head to the ground.
Thank god she decided to paint the “before”, and not the “after”.
There are also a couple of extremely gory paintings (not by Gentileschi) portraying the myth of Apollo and Marsyas. The satyr Marsyas challenged Apollo to a music contest, lost, and was skinned alive as punishment. I’ve never understood why it’s such a popular topic in art – in sculpture as well as painting. Who wants to look at a work of art depicting someone being flayed? It suggests something of a sadomasochistic streak in the artistic tastes of our ancestors. The 17th century equivalent of the Saw films, perhaps.
If you’re in the mood for some caravaggesque drama, I recommend a visit to Palazzo Braschi. It’s a unique opportunity to see several paintings by Gentileschi displayed together, and to explore the darker side of Baroque art.
By the time we walked out into Piazza Navona, we were quite happy to have a break from all the weeping, flaying and decapitating, but we both came out with a renewed interest and appreciation of Gentileschi – a prodigal talent who created a career for herself against the odds.
The Gentileschi exhibition runs until 7 May 2017 at Palazzo Braschi, Piazza Navona.